Grasping to understand the need for news organizations to pump out 140-character details of the Sandy Hook state police report before posting whole stories. Surely, this is the kind of story that requires more thought than the rapid tweeting on the social media site Twitter that ensued yesterday after the official report was made public at about 3 p.m.
Many reporters showed great sensitivity on Dec. 14 – just two weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the shooting – by not converging on the little village of Sandy Hook to cover the “news” of how residents and the families of the victims are faring. Most did that work in the days leading up to the anniversary, to give the families a respite when they clearly needed their privacy on what would undoubtedly be a painful day of remembrance.
But there many were yesterday afternoon, pumping out the bits of information as soon as the report was out. It makes sense as a business strategy, of course. News organizations must entice followers and drive social media metrics, presumably to encourage online readers to go out and get the hard copy newspapers today to read the more comprehensive coverage. In the news business, you’ve got to be first. You want to be known as the best, the leader in your field. You want readers to keep coming back because they know they will get the scoop from your organization. You’ll get it right, you’ll get it first, and you’ll deliver the goods with professionalism and sensitivity.
As a former journalist, I had a heightened awareness to the release of the records, and a curiosity, like anyone else, about what they contain. As a social media user, I also wanted to see how the story would play out on Twitter and other sites. And there’s where I’m having some trouble getting my head around it.
What is the value of a piece-meal telling of a story this complex? The competition of a 24-hour news cycle and an immediate, on-demand mentality to be first and accurate is mind blowing to me and fascinating. I’d love to have been there for the news meeting where editors and reporters discussed how to cover the release of the report, because the social media element of dispatching the news is just a whole different realm.
Maybe it is because I know what it feels like to be the family member of a murder victim that I am sensitive to the news spotlight on details that, for a family member, feel like they are yours and yours alone to share or not. It feels exploitive to hone in on details without offering a full story in context, to consider it with deliberate thought before pressing the “Send” button that publishes it for the world to read. How do we decide that quickly what information is of value to the reader? Where does the news judgment have a chance to weigh in when you are tweeting to beat the clock?
I get it, it’s a different news industry than the one I belonged to some 14 years ago. But in a sense, it isn’t. Back then, we were all about grabbing readers and driving up circulation, thus sales. The difference was we had a longer deadline window to review the facts, consider the angles of the story, and bounce it around with editors and other reporters to flesh out a story that would do a service to readers.
It’s also true that many people – particularly the younger generation of 20-somethings – get their news from social media. They may never pick up a newspaper but they’ll scroll through social media on their smartphones and get enough detail to feel like they’re in the know.
I have many friends and former colleagues who are still in the news business so I mean no disrespect to them for their social media efforts to get the news out. Quite the opposite – I highly respect the extremely difficult job they do. It is a tough job to do well, and I am honored to know so many who fit that bill. As a matter of fact, in scrolling through the tweets from news sites yesterday, I think it is remarkable that so many of them were done so well. This is content that shakes the soul.
But I have to wonder how it feels to sift through a report like the Sandy Hook file on a timer.